After 500 wins, numerous awards
and a bout with cancer
Ryan looms as a giant in
Ryan stands just southwest of center court, hands on hips, the
smallest person in University Hall. She stands very still, hardly
moving from the V on the floor during 11 minutes of
fast-paced drills. Only her eyes, darting over her players, and
her voice, a constant exhortation, are in motion. Her physical
stillness commands attention.
of Athletic Media Relations Office
Ryan got her 300th win on March 23, 1991, when Virginia beat
Lamar at Austin, Texas, 85-70.
has held that spot near center court for 25 years, molding Virginia
womens basketball teams, building them into a formidable
program and the flagship of the Universitys womens
athletic curriculum. A pioneer of female college ball, Ryans
credentials, awards and achievements firmly ensconce her in an
elite group of coaches. Selected Atlantic Coast Conference Coach
of the Year seven times since 1987, her services have been sought
by many schools over the years. But Ryan has stayed put.
were times when I was courted to go elsewhere, Ryan concedes.
I went a couple places to look to see what other people
had so I could make it better here. And every time I went out,
I came back feeling like I know I can do it here. I always felt
strongly about this University and its mission and the special
place that I think Charlottesville is to live.
native of Titusville, N.J., Ryan graduated from Ursinus (Pa.)
College in 1975. She came to U.Va. to earn a masters in
physical education and take a position as assistant coach for
the womens basketball and field hockey teams under then-athletics
director Gene Corrigan. Corrigan, Ryans uncle, went to the
University president to make the case for hiring a 24-year-old
coach when the top position opened two years later.
Ryan gets a hand and a lift from players DeMya
Walker, left, and Lisa Hosac after her 500th victory Feb.
21, 1999, an 83-65 triumph over Florida State at University
Hall. Ryan, then in her 22nd year at U.Va., was the 13th coach
in NCAA Division I history with at least 500 wins, and only
the sixth to earn them all at one school.
was unusual at the time, but it wasnt super unusual because
everything was growing so quickly, Ryan recalls. When
I took the job it wasnt that big of a deal because there
wasnt any money in womens basketball, and not a lot
of money in my salary.
was a late bloomer when it came to giving womens sports
the attention and resources needed to turn out winners, says Ryan.
While rivals such as Maryland, ODU and N.C. State were already
offering scholarships to female athletes in the late 70s,
Ryans fledgling program awarded no scholarships and operated
on a minimal budget. Sharing a locker-room lined with urinals
with five other teams, the basketball players relied on personal
cars and vans to get to away games, usually driving back the same
night. The Cavaliers won only eight of their 25 games in the 1977-78
season. It was Ryans first and only losing
turned the team around in her second season. Her third team set
or matched 11 team records and received the programs first
postseason tournament invitation.
the victories and records piled up, the University responded with
incentives. From 1980 to 1990 the programs budget and Ryans
salary nearly tripled. But gender equity at University Hall was
still far on the horizon, Ryan says.
Ryan performed with Grammy award-winning singer and songwriter
Mary Chapin Carpenter in Old Cabell Hall last May. The concert
was a benefit for U.Va.s Cancer Center where Ryan underwent
surgery and follow-up treatment for pancreatic cancer.
were a lot of battles, a lot of skirmishes along the way. You
had to fight and stand up for things. You had to push for things
that we thought we should have, primarily because men were playing
the exact same game and had those things and you wanted to be
sure your athletes had the things they needed to succeed.
credits former athletic administrator James West for prioritizing
the womens game and taking it under his wing.
found a way to do things that a lot of other schools couldnt
do, she says.
Wests ingenuity was essentially a practice of letting the
womens team nip into the mens budget for travel and
uniforms. Now retired, West justifies the effort, saying, success
breeds options. Everything I did was approved by Gene Corrigan,
because the fans were coming.
1986, one of Wests inspirations ran afoul of the fire marshals
when the athletic department made a school-wide drive to break
an all-time womens college basketball attendance record
offering free hot dogs as an incentive. The record was broken,
but not before overselling University Hall and crowding the aisles
and fire exits. And they were still lined up down to Emmet
Street, he chuckles.
the womens team draws five times more fans than any mens
game did back in the first 10 years of U-Hall.
1992, Ryan was awarded a 25 percent pay raise to achieve salary
equity with mens basketball coach Jeff Jones. Only one other
Division I coach enjoyed such parity at the time.
administrators were working to fatten the programs budget,
sports fans and commentators were applauding Ryan and her peers
for changing the face of the sport. On the eve of her 400th career
victory, Richmond Times-Dispatch sports writer Vic Dorr Jr. declared,
No other coach man or woman, past or present
has produced success of this sort while working at a state Division
I school. Ryan had joined the ranks of her male mentors,
Terry Holland and Dean Smith, giving a whole new generation of
young women athletes a real role model.
Sun., Feb. 17
U.Va. vs. Maryland at U-Hall.
Thurs., Feb. 21
U.Va. vs. North Carolina at U-Hall. 7:30 p.m.
Sun., Feb. 24
U.Va. vs. Florida State at Tallahassee. 2 p.m.
Fri.-Mon., March 1-4.
ACC Tournament. Greensboro, N.C.
of those young women was Valerie Ackerman, a four-year player
with Virginia who is now president of the Womens National
Basketball Association. [Coach Ryans] contribution
to the sport has been nothing short of extraordinary, and I know
I speak for all of the players when I say Im incredibly
proud to be associated with her and with her program, she
sings the praises of her many former players who have gone on
to play pro ball, but stresses that the real strength of U.Va.s
athletic program comes from its focus on academic excellence.
just as proud of the people who have gone on to have families
or gone on to be successful in the professional world. We have
an orthopedic surgeon, an oral surgeon
I have so many people
who have done extraordinary things and Im just as proud
of them, she says.
golden years came in the early 90s. From 1989 to 1993, the
Cavaliers won three ACC tournament championships and advanced
to the NCAA Final Four three straight years. Virginia became the
first ACC school to go undefeated during the regular season.
peak years on the court were followed with more professional affirmation
for Ryan. By 1999, she was celebrating her 500th career win and
her seventh ACC Coach of the Year award.
another battle launched her back into the headlines but
there was much more at stake this time. In August 2000, Ryan confirmed
that she had had a brush with cancer, and one of its deadliest
thought was, Well, Ive had a good life, Ill
see you all, says Ryan about her initial diagnosis.
I knew that pancreatic cancer is pancreatic cancer.
growth was small enough to be surgically removed. After six weeks
of radiation and chemotherapy, Ryan was given a clean bill of
health. Following doctors orders (as well as those of athletic
director Terry Holland, a longtime friend and colleague), Ryan
left recruiting to her assistants, but vowed not to miss a single
practice. A year later, Ryan coached the U.S. team to a gold medal
in the World University Games in Beijing. Beating tremendous odds
to become a survivor of pancreatic cancer, she says, was a gift.
turned out to be a very positive thing in my life, because Ive
become a much better person, says Ryan, who credits the
late state Sen. Emily Couric for encouraging her to speak out
about her cancer. Ive learned to reach out to other
people in this same position, and to families who have loved ones
in this position. Its been a friend to me because I think
that as much as an enemy it is, its made me a better person,
a better coach and a better mentor.
one of four upperclassmen on this years team, senior Telisha
Quarles has seen the transformation in her coach. After a rough
start in her first season, she says her relationship with Ryan
is now one of the most important facets of her game and college
life. I talk to her about a lot of personal things. Shes
not just my coach, shes one of my best friends.
players, coaches and fans agree that her amazing physical recovery
is a reflection of her mental toughness. Her post-op return to
court was greeted with whoops of relief, but underlying the emotional
outpouring was a sense of inevitability as if there was
never really any question of who would win in this particular
showdown. At the time, senior captain Deanna Mitchelson
told USA Today, Shes so strong-willed. She wont
bow down to anything. I dont care if youre cancer
is humbler. She says theres truth in her reputation as a
tough and confident adversary, but cancer, she says, is a whole
different ball game.
really are at a crossroads. Theres no question that there
are things associated with it that youve never experienced
before. Unless youre a cancer survivor, youll never
biggest thing about cancer is that theres a lot of fear.
And I guess when youve been in sports and faced critics,
you learn to deal with it a little bit better youre
better prepared. But also because I could step out and help other
people took my mind off it a lot.
with Couric, diagnosed with pancreatic cancer about the same time
as Ryan and who succumbed to the disease in October, Ryan hosted
a sold-out concert by Mary Chapin Carpenter to raise over $100,000
for the U.Va. Cancer Center. She is also involved in fund-raising
activities for the student-run advocacy group, FORCE (Fighting,
Overcoming, and Responding to Cancer Everywhere).
Ryan has a lot on her plate a young team in need of guidance,
a calendar of advocacy events, and this silver anniversary jubilee
on Feb. 15-17 but none of this distracts her from the bigger
dont really reflect a lot, but when you run into a life-altering
situation like cancer, you do have a tendency to really go through
how much youre blessed and how much youve been given
throughout the years. Ive just been very proud to have been
a small part of the great history of the University of Virginia.
Its just one of my finest moments, every minute that Ive
been here. Im extremely proud to have been a part of it.
softer, gentler Ryan might exude satisfaction in her reflective
moments, but theres no doubt that her quest for an elusive
NCAA championship continues. Ever since she came up short three
years in a row, Ryan has had her eye on the title. This years
team has struggled a little, slipping to the lower half of the
ACC. But Ryan says that the youth of the team bodes well for next
year were going to be very strong. We have a very young
team now thats gaining a lot of experience and getting playing
time. And now that Im a little wiser about these things,
it will be a little bit easier for me in terms of orchestrating
it. But no doubt, next year were going to be a fantastic
fantastic as any team in her illustrious 25-year career?
be, she says with a grin, Could be.